As Romney the candidate looks to lock up the Republican nomination, the task before us is to figure out, once and for all, what lies at the core of Mitt Romney the man.
No, no, ambition and wealth-acquisition don't count. They are mere means to an end.
The question is: What does this man really care about, deep down inside?
It occurred to me on Tuesday night, as I watched his speech following the results in New Hampshire, that Mitt Romney's core is right in front of our eyes -- and has been all along. It is consistent with his record. It is consistent with his rhetoric. It is consistent with his biography. Come to think of it, this may be the one consistent thing about him.
Mitt Romney has at his core a fervent belief in American exceptionalism, rooted in his religion. He is, above all, a good Mormon missionary.
When I say he is a good Mormon missionary I am not saying that he wants to convert all Americans or all of the citizens of the world to his religion (although of course he would not be opposed to such an outcome). What I am saying is that he is a good Mormon missionary in that he truly believes that America is the exceptional nation, the nation of destiny that, as Joseph Smith learned in 1832, will host Jesus when he returns to Jackson County, Missouri. This was taught to him at a very young age through the teachings of his Church.
What I heard on Tuesday night in New Hampshire, is the deep-seated, deeply felt, American exceptionalism that flows from this core belief. You hear it in Romney's frequent and animated attacks on President Obama's "apology tour" (which of course never happened). You hear it in Romney's fear that America might borrow ideas from socialistic Europe. You hear it in his insistence that as President he will make America "America" again.
We are the special nation. His religion tells him so.
This is more than the typical patriotic bromides you hear on a nightly basis from, say, Sean Hannity. As I say, I suspect that Romney's American exceptionalism is rooted in the faith, inculcated in Mitt since he was a young boy, that America is the chosen nation of God, and the fate of the world rests on America's difference.
As we know, the Evangelical wing of the Republican Party has become increasingly fierce in its allegiance to Israel, partly because of its Biblical understanding that the Jews should live in the holy land. Well, for Mormons like Mitt Romney, America too has its Zion, and must be protected from all interference by outsiders.
Despite the doubts about the "cult" of Mormonism among Chrisitanists in the South, this is where the America First rhetoric of the right, with its hyper-militarism and xenophobia, dovetails perfectly with Romney's religious-based American exceptionalism.
What does this all mean for President Obama's campaign?
It strikes me that President Obama must counter this one genuine aspect of Romney -- the core of the man -- with a serious effort to define a different kind of patriotism. If Romney is to resonate with the voters, god forbid, it will be based on this shared sentiment that America is a chosen land. President Obama needs to define the ways that he believes America to be exceptional too -- as a land of opportunity, of rights, of fairness, not based on a tale of Gold Plates and Rapture but on real stakes for real people.